Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
Omicron, the early Christmas present no one asked for, is already upending holiday travel plans following its sudden emergence in late November.
Many countries have banned travel from southern Africa. Others have already brought in tougher restrictions on travel from other countries to slow the variant's spread.
Experts say there is still much to learn about the strain.
So what do we already know about the variant, and what are the travel rules for UAE residents?
The National explains.
Has Omicron already affected travel?
Aside from the travel bans affecting passengers from several states in southern Africa, some countries have brought in more stringent rules.
From Tuesday, the UK will require all passengers to take a pre-departure test a maximum of 48 hours before flying there, regardless of their vaccination status. All travellers must also complete a passenger locator form 48 hours before they arrive.
Travellers must also book and pay for a PCR test in the UK before they travel. This test must be completed before the end of day two, with arrival being day zero.
What could happen to Christmas travel?
Much depends on research into the variant, the results of which will be available soon.
Other countries may widen travel bans or choose to reintroduce quarantine if Omicron proves to be more severe or transmissible.
What do we know about Omicron so far?
Evidence so far suggests it can produce mild symptoms. About three quarters of those in hospital with the virus were there for other reasons, according to research in South Africa.
But experts say it is still too early to draw conclusions about the severity of the disease because hospital admissions and deaths lag behind new cases. And most Omicron cases are among younger people, who are at lower risk of developing Covid complications.
More very young children with Omicron – age zero to 4, but particularly zero to 2 – are being admitted to hospital in the South African hot spots, when compared to earlier variants.
Some South African doctors have said the variant produces mild symptoms in children. But others, including the head of the Intensive Care Unit at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, have spoken about an increase in moderate to severe cases among children.
Prof Rudo Mathivha said this trend had not been seen in previous waves.
“If we want to get children, toddlers, coming in significant numbers, with significant severity of disease, this is going to be a major problem for us," she said.
“Our hospitals were not built to house a lot of children because, naturally, children do not get that sick in multitudes. We will not be able to accommodate them.”
Experts have said the answers to these questions should be available in the next two weeks. And much about what will come next will depend on them.
Here is a rundown on the rules for UAE residents who plan to travel over the holidays:
What do the UAE authorities say?
In November, the health authorities said travel overseas is permitted over the Christmas holidays, but is not advised given the high numbers of Covid-19 cases in some countries.
The Omicron variant has emerged since then, leading some countries, including the UAE, to ban travel from hot spots like South Africa.
But most destinations are still open, even those with high rates of Delta infections, such as many countries in Europe.
Travellers are advised to research their destinations in case the authorities there require a printed negative Covid test result. Passengers may also need to download a local tracing app.
Returning to Dubai
All UAE residents can now travel to Dubai without first obtaining the approval of the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs or the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship, unless they are coming from:
· Sri Lanka
If they are travelling from any of these countries, they must first seek GDRFA or ICA approval to enter the UAE and take a rapid test at the departure airport within six hours of the flight.
They must also present a negative Covid-19 PCR test result with the QR code for a test conducted within 48 hours of the flight.
Passenger flights from several southern African nations – including South Africa, Namibia and Botswana – to the UAE are currently suspended. Any passengers who had have been in or connected through these countries in the past 14 days will be prevented from entering the Emirates.
Anyone travelling from other countries not on the GDRFA or ICA pre-approval list must present a negative PCR certificate from a Covid test taken no more than 72 hours before departure.
Returning to Abu Dhabi
UAE residents must register on the ICA's Smart Travel Service, unless they are travelling directly to other emirates.
They must also take a Covid-19 PCR test from within 48 hours of their flight.
Vaccinated residents do not need to quarantine. Anyone travelling from a green-list country must be tested on arrival and on day six.
Vaccinated residents returning from any other destination must be tested on arrival, day four and day eight.
The rules are different for non-vaccinated residents, who must go into quarantine if returning from a non-green-list country.